Foster and Partners' Bexley Business Academy encourages integration through its transparent, open-plan, triple-height design. But how do you stop the noise disturbing other classes – and comply with acoustic rules? We listened in on a lesson
The Bexley Business Academy would not look out of place in a modern business park. Large glass facades and banks of steel louvres give the building a crisp, high-tech feel that is light years away from the hotchpotch of tatty outbuildings that typify British schools. The office theme continues inside. There are large open-plan spaces, a boardroom, a spacious restaurant, and information and communications technology that would be the envy of brokers and bankers in nearby Canary Wharf.

As well as being the first business-sponsored government academy, it will also be the first school in the country to provide a cradle-to-university service (it will take children from infancy to 18 years old) with a crèche, a nursery, a primary school and a secondary school.

World-renowned architect Foster and Partners provided the designs for Bexley Business Academy, but not the inspiration. That accolade goes to educationalist and ex-headmistress Valerie Bragg. She was chosen to project-manage the creation of the academy by the school's private sponsor Sir David Garrard, executive chairman of Minerva property group (see "The business brains behind Bexley", page 8).

Bragg's vision of having an open-plan school provided the acoustic consultant Harris Grant with a design and specification headache. The variety of teaching space – much of it open-plan – had to be designed so that pupils and teachers would not be disturbed by noise from other classes. To meet the "open and transparent" demands of the brief, Foster incorporated glass walls to visibly connect the staff and students. A sensible philosophy, but it meant that Harris Grant had to mitigate the echoes caused by the large expanse of glass. "Echoes break down intelligibility very quickly," explains Neil Grant, Harris Grant's managing director.

The problem was compounded by the hard concrete surfaces Foster had left exposed in order to provide the thermal mass necessary to cool the building interior. Added to this was the tight timeframe – the school had to be built in only two years, and there would be little time for remedial work if the acoustic strategy failed.

Fortunately for the design team, Bragg was aware of the potential acoustic problems and had made sure that Harris Grant was involved in the project from the start. "Before there was even a hole in the ground, we were modelling the sound. It was an unusual and pleasing circumstance to be involved in the project from the beginning. We were able to make everybody on the design team aware of the problems," says Grant.

He was able to analyse the noise characteristics of the teaching space before construction began by using powerful acoustic software called CATT. After feeding in the acoustic measurements of the surfaces, the program calculated the acoustic performance of each area.

To deal with the reverberating echoes in the three internal courtyards, Grant came up with the idea of suspending baffles from the ceiling. "Baffles are used in warehouses and factories to absorb sound," says Grant. "It occurred to me that we could use them to do the same thing here."

The baffles provided an elegant solution. They followed the same lines as the steel structure so were discreet and did not impede natural light from entering the courtyards. Mineral wool and fibreglass were specified for the baffles to provide a high level of sound absorbency. Rows of baffles resembling small louvres were also used at the top of the glass walls to provide further acoustic insulation.

In the ground-floor teaching spaces, a 25 mm sealed glass unit was specified to provide acoustic protection. The specification had to be high, because some of the teaching areas contain noisy machinery, such as potter's wheels, saws, routers and cooking equipment. The glass unit consists of two gas-filled layers of glass, which are laminated and toughened.

The classrooms on the upper levels overlook the art, technology and business courtyards, and have no walls to protect the students from noise. Instead, acoustic protection comes in the form of toughened glass balustrades fixed to upper-floor galleries and bridges.

Harris Grant also managed to provide a high level of sound absorbency in the classrooms without spoiling Foster's designs. Perforated steel trays backed with sound-absorbent fibreglass batts were specified and suspended from the concrete slab. This meant that the concrete was left exposed, allowing the thermal mass of the slab to passively cool the classrooms. The steel trays were also used to conceal lighting and conduits carrying cables and services.

Harris Grant also used the CATT model to determine the material to be used for the flooring. Originally, hardwood flooring was to be specified but after analysis, it was found not to have sufficient sound absorbency: a 9 mm carpet and rubber tiles were specified instead.

Teachers have given the completed school top marks, according to both Bragg and Harris Grant. The say they like the atmosphere, and interference from other lessons did not seem to be a problem.

However, the design of Bexley Business Academy will pose an interesting conundrum for the government, as its open-plan design may not comply with acoustic building regulations, which came into force on 1 July this year.

Part E of the Building Regulations refers designers and specifiers of school buildings to Building Bulletin 93, which offers guidance on acoustic design. It sets tough standards on the transfer of sound between teaching spaces, something that some of Bexley's open-plan teaching spaces cannot achieve.

On the ground floor, all the teaching spaces – apart from the three large courtyards – are sound-protected E E by thick glass. On the upper levels, it is a different story: many of the classrooms and teaching spaces that overlook the courtyards only have a glass balustrade to separate them acoustically from the rest of the school.

As BB93 demands high levels of sound insulation between classrooms, Bexley would probably have failed to comply with Part E if it had been built after 1 July. But Grant says there might be a get-out for schools with large open-plan areas. Although BB93 strongly discourages the simultaneous teaching of several classes in open-plan spaces, it states that such spaces can be built if there is a demonstrable need for them and if it can be proved by acoustic modelling that they have a high level of speech intelligibility.

Valerie Bragg is delighted with the finished building and is satisfied that her vision has been realised.

"I had some battles, which was good. I've made sure it's an operational building and not just an architectural one," she says.

Bragg claims that the open-plan nature of the academy does not limit the ability of staff to teach and of children to learn. The proof, says Bragg, is the positive experience of the teachers. "The staff really like it and it works," she says.

CABE's Stuart Lipton and Tony Blair are also fans – whether the building control officers who enforce building regulations will be admirers of similar new schools remains to be seen. If more open plan schools are to be built, local authorities will have to give experts such as Harris Grant the chance to prove they can provide high standards of acoustic performance without having to stick too rigidly to the rules …

Glass walls and and a trading floor: A guided tour of the academy

The first thing you notice about Bexley Business Academy is the complete lack of corridors. Once you’ve been swiped in through the automatic entry doors, you find yourself in a huge, light-filled atrium of glass and steel. This is the business courtyard, the largest open space in the academy and the social hub of the building.

Valerie Bragg’s ethos of providing open, transparent spaces in order to encourage interaction is immediately apparent. The internal courtyard spaces containing the art, business and technology departments are open-plan and three storeys high, enabling you to peer into the classrooms on the upper levels. There’s hardly an opaque wall in sight. Glass walls mean that classroom activity is visible across the academy, which is good for security as well as inclusiveness.

The business courtyard has all the trappings of a modern City HQ. There’s a smart circular reception desk, a boardroom complete with black leather chairs and even a trading “bearpit” complete with podium, digital ticker tape and plasma TV screens.

The courtyard also contains the modern restaurant, which serves up inviting dishes such as coq au vin, rather than the traditional school dinners of bangers and mash. Above the restaurant is a multifunctional theatre space and an impressively kitted-out sports hall with a climbing wall and gym.

The teaching facilities at the school are outstanding (thanks in part to business sponsorship). There is a fully-equipped TV studio, radio studio and editing suite, and technology students have laser routers and cutting machines at their disposal. There is also a wireless network, which can be accessed by one of 100 PC tablets provided for the pupils.

The teachers are also expected to make the most of the technology. They are given lessons in using the networked electronic whiteboards and are encouraged to make the most of the many flatscreen PCs in the building. Teachers are also able to electronically operate external louvres if a different environment in the classroom is required.

The louvres have been designed to automatically track the sun’s path and reduce heat gain in the summer. The whole building is passively ventilated apart from the classrooms at the heart of the building, which are a long way from the external vents and therefore need to be mechanically ventilated.

Despite being called an academy, the building is a still a school and it has colourful artworks that soften the space. The most eye-catching is the huge montage of portraits of the school’s teachers and pupils.

Bragg is keen on colour. “I wanted colour, while architects generally only want black and white. It’s so boring otherwise,” she says. Her influence can be seen in the restaurant, which she insisted was painted a rich raspberry pink. “The architect would have wanted it painted white,” she sighs.

The business brains behind Bexley

Bexley’s business sponsor is the executive chairman of property group Minerva, Sir David Garrard. He made a capital contribution of £2.4m towards the costs of Bexley Business Academy, with the government providing the rest of the funding.

Garrard was introduced to educationalist Valerie Bragg by DfES officials because of her track record in restoring the fortunes of rundown schools. Bragg was the principal of the City Technology College, in Kingshurst, Birmingham. There she pioneered innovations such as flat management structures (meaning less bureaucracy), brunch lunches and closer links with business. Garrard approved of what he saw at Kingshurst and agreed to appoint Bragg as project manager of the Academy project.

Garrard and the DfES chose Thamesmead, South-east London, as the site for the first Academy because of the poor state of the existing secondary school, which had no sixth form and woeful academic results. “David said that it was awful and I agreed with him,” remembers Bragg.

The school currently has 1,350 11- to 18-year-olds, but the new 2002 Education Act means it will soon be able to teach primary school children, and house a nursery and crèche.

Bragg’s 30 years of educational experience has made her realise the importance of school architecture.

“I genuinely believe that the building is one of the most important determinants of behaviour among pupils, learning and the way staff teach,” she comments.

Bragg believes that open, transparent and compact spaces encourage integration, communication and cross-fertilisation among students, teachers and visitors.

What Bragg definitely didn’t want was a traditional linear building with classrooms accessed off a long corridor. “I didn’t want children to walk up and down a street,” explains Bragg. “It’s better if the building is square, rectangular or circular, as it means things are never too far away, and it won’t take long to go from one lesson to another. It’s also better for discipline – bullying tends to take place in corridors.”

By doing away with corridors, Bragg was able to increase the teaching area. The circulation areas are in the three main courtyards and on the transparent bridges and galleries that overlook the main spaces. All the circulation areas are overlooked by other parts of the school, which allows teachers to keep an eye on pupils. “It forces the children to behave,” says Bragg. To reinforce good behaviour, CCTV has also been installed in the circulation areas, but not in the classrooms.

Bragg’s innovative approach to school design will be seen in at least five more academies. She is joint chief executive of 3E’s Enterprises, a not-for-profit school management company owned by City Technology College Kingshurst Trust, which now operates four schools under the Kingshurst Federation name.

3E’s Enterprises also has a business arm dedicated to IT. It supplied all the ICT equipment and software for Bexley Business Academy and creates online national curriculum programmes for teachers and students.


Acoustic baffles
Clark & Fenn Skanska
Precast concrete slabs
Floor tiles
Furniture supplier
Race Furniture
3E’s Enterprises
Cladding supplier
Schüco International